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The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010)

by Edmund de Waal

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This is a pretty interesting account of the travels, through five generations, of a collection of netsuke, Japanese carvings used as fasteners to secure small containers to the sashes of kimonos. The collection started around 1871 in Paris and spent the years 1899-1947 in Vienna before moving on to Tokyo and London. The book includes photos and etchings of members of the Ephrussi family and some of their residences, including the fabulous Palais Ephrussi in Vienna.

At first I was hesitant about finishing this book due to awkward sentence structure and the fact that paragraphs jump from one subject to another and are at times hard to follow. It just bugged me enough to consider not finishing the book. Once I got over my bias, I found the story to be strangely compelling.

I liked the descriptions of cities, residences, and people. Edmund de Waal, the fifth generation to own the netsuke collection and the author of this book, digs deep and really fleshes out the personalities of the successive owners; Charles: the rich Parisian public figure. Viktor: the unintended heir to the Ephrussi banking dynasty. Elizabeth: the intellectual lawyer who inherited the collection after it had been hidden away for years. Iggie: who traveled widely in search of himself.

I was captivated by lively Emmy Schey von Koromla Ephrussi, Mr. de Waal’s great-grandmother. She lived an idyllic life in Vienna. She had many admirers, a maid to dress her, servants to wait on her, and a palace to live in with her husband Viktor and their three children. I believe she was a good mother - she told stories to her children when they were young.

Once the Nazis had taken over the Palais Ephrussi in 1938, I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world the netsuke collection got out of there! After all, the Nazis had taken out almost everything the Ephrussi family owned and sold it, gave it to German museums, or to Hitler himself. You will find out the answer to this question.

The title of the book is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, so I presumed the story would be about the collection. It is, but mostly it’s about the family and what they went through as Jews living in Paris and Vienna amid growing anti-Semitism. De Waal may not be the most professional writer, but I’m glad his friends talked him into writing this account. It is a fascinating story and it won the Costa Biography Award in 2010.

You would also think that a book about a netsuke collection would actually have a few pictures of them. Nope. There is the merest scattering of very tiny photos on the cover. That was a big disappointment for me.

I have no idea if everything in this book is true; some of the background information could be construed as wishful thinking or over embellishment, such as the connections with the renowned European artists and writers of the day. Unfortunately, with all the falsifying exposures of writers over the past few years, I now read biographies with a slightly skeptical eye. For this I apologize.

Overall, I certainly enjoyed reading The Hare With Amber Eyes and would recommend it to people who enjoy biographies. ( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
A leisurely history of a collection of Netsuke which had been in the authors family since the late 19th century. The most fantastic part is how the collection in austria in a Jewish family managed to stay in that family. ( )
  pnorman4345 | Oct 2, 2015 |
Not generally being a reader of biography or indeed non-fiction of any sort, I wouldn't have read this fascinating book had not my aunty, who has similar tastes in literature to myself, sent me it after having raved about it over the phone for several weeks. It was rather hard to understand why she was so excited from her descriptions: "It's written by this guy, he's from an old Russian Jewish banking family and he decided to track the history of his Great-uncle's collection of Japanese netsuke..." "Wow, yeah, that sounds fascinating, Aunty Lexie..." I said, whilst privately wondering what she was on. Well, now I know, although whether I can describe the enchantment de Waal spins is another thing, especially in my present exhausted and headache-y state (unconnected with the reading process, I hasten to add!) I'll try to keep it simple: the writing is of very high quality, the style of narrative is extraordinarily engaging (the word "friendly" springs to mind) and the exploration of stories, from the author's quest on the micro scale broadening through family history to an overview of world history spanning over a century, is achieved with a delicacy of touch and intelligence that enables the complex interweaving timelines to be combined in a cohesive whole. Very, very impressive. Thanks, Aunty Lexie! ( )
  Vivl | Aug 30, 2015 |
Edmund de Waal’s beautifully descriptive account follows his Russian Jewish family from Odessa where, after making their fortunes in the grain business, his great-great-grandfather Ignace von Ephrussi and Ignace’s older brother, Leon Ephrussi, emigrate with their families—Ignace to Vienna, Leon to Paris. Both men become extremely wealthy, building and living in palaces where they raise their children, make names for themselves, and become part of fashionable society. When Edmund inherits his great-uncle Ignace’s beautiful 264 piece Japanese netsuke collection, his curiosity about the original collector of these valuable pieces of art, Charles Ephrussi, a son of the above-mentioned Leon, inspires him to begin his search through the past in Paris. From Paris, where Leon’s branch of the family settles, to Vienna where Ignace von Ephrussi builds the magnificent Palais Ephrussi for Edmund’s own branch of the family, the author takes us on a journey through the generations that is rich with 19th and 20th century European history. From the mid-1800s in Vienna and Paris, the two branches of the wealthy Ephrussi family continue to prosper; Ignace becomes a powerful banker in Vienna where his bank and his five-story Palais Ephrussi sit on the famous Ringstrasse. From the beginning the Ephrussi’s struggle with their Jewishness, but manage to climb in stature and position amidst a Caucasian European population. With the onslaught of Hitler’s Nazi regime, however, it all comes tumbling down. Yet somehow most of the family survive the camps, although they lose everything else—their funds, the palaces, banks, furniture and art work. Through a strange twist of events, the netsuke collection survives, ending up in Japan, where Charles began his collection. The author’s grandmother, Elizabeth, gives the netsuke to her brother Ignace Ephrussi (Iggy) after they are rediscovered after the war. This is an amazing story of family success, love affairs, pride, loss, defeat and revival. And woven through it all is the story of the netsuke; how they are maintained by the family; how they eventually come into the possession of Edmund de Waal, who shares their story with us with skill and loving regard to detail. Written in first person, present tense, de Waal’s book brings the past to life in a very unique way. An easy to follow family tree is to be found in the book’s front pages. I rarely give a book five stars, but this family account earns every one. ( )
  suztales | May 13, 2015 |
Acquired 2014
  jgsgblib | May 11, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 89 (next | show all)
What happened to the hare with amber eyes, and the carved medlar that almost felt as if it might squish when handled, after their return from Japan? De Waal bought them a secondhand vitrine from the V&A and set it up in his London house, its door unlocked so his own children could play with its contents. "Objects have always been . . . stolen, retrieved and lost. It is how you tell their stories that matters." He has told their story wonderfully. Oh, and this is a beautiful and unusual book, as a physical object. Somebody really cared.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edmund de Waalprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boraso, MarinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cohen, MarceloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eklöf, MargaretaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hilzensauer, BrigitteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnová, LucieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lempens, WillekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miró, CarlesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prosperi, CarloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rugstad, ChristianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sasada, MasakoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Even when one is no longer attached to things, it's still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn't grasp...Well, now that I'm a little too weary to live with other people, these old feelings, so personal and individual, that I had in the past, seem to me - it's a mania for all collectors - very precious. I open my heart to myself like a sort of vitrine, and examine one by one all those love affairs of which the world can know nothing. And of this collection to which I'm now much more attached than to my others, I say to myself, rather as Mazarin said of his books, but in fact without the least distress, that it will be very tiresome to have to leave it at all.'
Charles Swann.

Marcel Proust, 'Cities of the Plain'.
For Ben, Matthew and Anna
and for my father.
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In 1991 I was given a two-year scholarship by a Japanese foundation.
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Book description

Paris 1871-1899 -- Vienna 1899-1938 -- Vienna Kövecses, Tunbridge Wells, Vienna 1938-1947 -- Tokyo 1947-2001 -- Tokyo, Odessa, London 2001-2009.
Haiku summary
Mansions, power, art / Exile, stolen dignity / Netsuke bear witness (LynnB)

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312569378, Paperback)

Amazon Best of the Month, September 2010: At the heart of Edmund de Waal's strange and graceful family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is a one-of-a-kind inherited collection of ornamental Japanese carvings known as netsuke. The netsuke are tiny and tactile--they sit in the palm of your hand--and de Waal is drawn to them as "small, tough explosions of exactitude." He's also drawn to the story behind them, and for years he put aside his own work as a world-renowned potter and curator to uncover the rich and tragic family history of which the carvings are one of the few concrete legacies. De Waal's family was the Ephrussis, wealthy Jewish grain traders who branched out from Russia across the capitals of Europe before seeing their empire destroyed by the Nazis. Beginning with his art connoisseur ancestor Charles (a model for Proust's Swann), who acquired the netsuke during the European rage for Japonisme, de Waal traces the collection from Japan to Europe--where they were saved from the brutal bureaucracy of the Nazi Anschluss in the pockets of a family servant--and back to Japan and Europe again. Throughout, he writes with a tough, funny, and elegant attention to detail and personality that does full justice to the exactitude of the little carvings that first roused his curiosity. --Tom Nissley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:06 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Traces the parallel stories of nineteenth-century art patron Charles Ephrussi and his unique collection of 360 miniature netsuke Japanese ivory carvings, documenting Ephrussi's relationship with Marcel Proust and the impact of the Holocaust on his cosmopolitan family.… (more)

» see all 9 descriptions

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